I thought I’d surprise you with a story to put you in the mood for Halloween. Who doesn’t need a nice witch or two for the holiday?
(Muddy River short story)
Rowan leaned across the wooden work table in our kitchen, watching me add the last ingredients to my stew. I gave it a stir, then turned to swipe carrot tops and onion skins into the trash. It was chilly outside, nearing the end of October, but the kitchen was warm with steam rising from the simmering pot on my six-burner stove. She fidgeted with the hem of her long-sleeved sweatshirt.
“Thanks for seeing me on your day off, Hester. I hate to bother you, but I don’t have very much witch magic like you and your coven. And I think I need help.”
“What kind of help?” I poured us each a cup of coffee and motioned for her to sit down. I needed to add a few seasonings to the pot before I joined her.
“The thing is, I don’t know if I’m losing my mind or if someone’s sneaking into my house in the middle of the night. I put up wards, but. . .” She sighed. “They’re not very strong, maybe not strong enough.”
One more stir and I turned to her with a frown. “What does this someone do? Does he take things?”
“No, nothing’s missing, but for a while now, I’ve felt like someone was watching me when I sleep. That’s just weird, right? I mean, why would anyone do that? But then, when I opened my eyes last night, a man was standing over me.”
I started to the table to sit across from her, but she gripped her coffee cup so hard, I thought she might break it. I made her nervous, so I’d kept my distance, trying to put her at ease. She still needed space, so I leaned against the kitchen counter instead. “Was this man someone you know?”
She shook her head. “The room was dark, and I couldn’t see very well. He wore a hoodie, and the hood shadowed his face. He scared me so much, I leapt out of bed to run away. He followed me and then . . .disappeared.”
“I don’t know.” The poor girl looked embarrassed just talking about it. She had to be desperate to come to me. We weren’t even acquaintances. She hadn’t attended my school for witches, and we rarely passed on the street.
I knew her parents. They lived in the north suburbs of Muddy River. Her mother was only one-fourth witch, and her father had so little magic, he wouldn’t have been able to shift if I hadn’t laid hands on him to help him survive the change. They’d passed on even less magic to their daughter, so she’d attended Muddy River’s public school. She was a pretty girl in a fresh, wholesome way with silky light brown hair and hazel eyes. “
“Did you see the man disappear?” I asked.
She looked confused. “He was there one minute and gone the next.”
“Did he touch anything? Make any motions with his hands?”
She tilted her head to the side, thinking. “He was standing by my bookcase, facing away from me. But maybe. . .” She shook her head. “I can’t be sure.”
I turned on the oven and transferred my stew to it to finish cooking. “What if I follow you to your house so you can show me where the man stood?”
“Now? When you’re in the middle of making supper?”
“It’s stew. It will be hours before it’s ready. Raven should be home by then.” My fire demon was helping Toothy, a shape shifter friend of ours who had a poultry farm on the north side of town. A fox-shifter was sneaking inside our borders to steal chickens from him.
Every fall, there was some sort of mischief when it got close to Hallows Eve. Samhain brought out the wild side of some supernaturals. Rowan still hesitated, so I went to grab my sweater. “Come on. I need to see where this man disappeared.” As I walked out the door, Claws—my ocelot familiar—fell into step beside me. If a stranger was popping in and out of Muddy River, he meant to be beside me when we met.
Rowan drove a compact, gray car, and I followed her to the suburbs where her parents lived. She turned on a street a few blocks from theirs and pulled to the curb in front a cozy, one-and-a-half story bungalow. It was painted a spice color with pale gold trim. Pumpkins lined the steps that led to her front door. She kept wiping her hands on her jeans as we walked up the sidewalk and fumbled with her key to let me inside.
“I don’t bite,” I assured her.
Her cheeks reddened with a deep blush. “Sorry. It’s just that I’ve heard so much about you.”
“Then you know I help people who live here.”
She gave a quick nod. “I never thought I’d have to come to you.”
“I’m glad you did.” I looked around the room. “Your home is adorable.” Antiques mingled with overstuffed furniture in a warm, comfortable décor.
She smiled, pleased, then jammed her hands in her jean pockets. “Thank you. I’ve redone everything except the upstairs. I’m going to start on that next year.”
I walked closer to the bookcase on the far wall. “Is this where he stood?”
Claws hunched on the floor by my feet, ready to pounce. He felt the same vibes I did. “Have you bought anything new to decorate it lately?”
Her eyes flew wide in surprise. “The black cat bookend. I found it at Muddy River’s market.”
“One of my coven’s booths?”
She frowned. “No, three weeks ago, an old woman was selling things out of the trunk of her car.”
Not good. Raven usually patrolled the area, but Drago had called him to help with a problem at the voodoo settlement that weekend.
“There was only one bookend?” I stepped closer to study it.
“Yes, but it fits perfectly where it is.”
It did, but I was betting there was a matching mate somewhere in someone else’s house. “It’s possible you have a stalker.”
“Why would anyone do that? They could just say hi to me when we meet.”
“I doubt it’s someone from town. You work for Karnil at the gravel pit, don’t you?”
“Answering phones. Filing. Things like that.”
“He thinks the world of you, and if anyone messed with you, they’d have to answer to him. I don’t know too many supernaturals who’d like to risk that.” None of us wanted to anger an incubus.
She looked down, a blush staining her cheeks. “He’s a wonderful boss.”
He would be. He might be powerful, but he was every bit as nice. I pursed my lips, trying to decide the best way to help her. “I think your bookend is a portal that connects with its mate, wherever that one is. Someone’s using it to travel here to spy on you.”
She laughed. “Then they’re going to get really bored. I don’t do anything exciting.”
“That’s why I think the man’s a stalker.”
“But how would he even find me? I never leave Muddy River except to go to the market on Saturdays.” We’d closed the booths on October first. The weather was too unpredictable once the fall solstice passed.
Had the man found her there? Or had he bought the other bookend and been whisked here on accident? We’d built the market far enough from town that we allowed mortals to shop there. Was it possible a mortal was visiting our town? We’d put up wards to keep them out, and the Fae had spelled an illusion so they couldn’t see Muddy River. Had one found a portal that brought him here? Not to harm us. No enemy could pass our wards. But to gaze at Rowan in her sleep?
That seemed likely to me, and I knew what I wanted to do about it. “Would you mind if Raven and I came here tonight, and I reversed the portal to take us to the other bookend?”
She gripped the edge of the bookcase, licking her lips nervously. “You mean, to where the man lives?”
“I hope so, but we won’t be able to identify him without you.”
Her grip tightened. “I have to go with you? What will you do to him?”
A fair question. “We’ll take away his portal, and then he can’t find or enter Muddy River again. He can’t sneak into your house to watch you sleep.”
She worried her bottom lip. “You won’t hurt him, will you? Raven won’t turn him to ashes? He’s never tried to harm me, hasn’t even touched me.”
“We’ll just take his portal and pop back home.”
She straightened her shoulders, trying to summon her courage. “When should I be ready?”
“Midnight should be late enough. He should be home.”
“I’ll be ready.” Her voice shook. She’d fret about going with us for the rest of the day, but if we got lucky, when we returned to Muddy River, she’d own both bookends and wouldn’t have to worry about a stalker ever again.
When I pulled into the drive of our three-story, yellow Victorian home, Raven’s Lamborghini was already parked in the garage. He’d left the door up for me, but I closed it and parked close to the kitchen door. We’d take my SUV when we went to Rowan’s tonight.
My mate was waiting for me when I walked through the door. He tugged me into a hug and leaned down to nuzzle my hair. “You smell delicious. So does the house.”
I laughed. “Stew. And I baked an apple pie this morning. Did you catch the fox-shifter?”
“We did. For recompense, he’s helping Toothy clean the poultry pens right now, and Paws invited him to stay for supper.”
Toothy’s wife, a cat shifter, was a softy, but cooking for the man who stole your chickens seemed a bit much. “Is she getting lonely out there since their kids grew up and moved out?”
“Empty nest is hitting her hard, but mostly, she felt sorry for the guy. A rogue werewolf attacked him and he’s in pretty bad shape, barely escaped alive. Can’t really hunt until he heals. He was stealing because he was hungry.”
I rolled my eyes. “Don’t tell me. They’re letting him stay with them until he’s better.”
He grinned. “They have a small house where a handyman used to live, and I’d lay odds it’s going to have a new occupant from now on. They really can use the extra help, and the shifter can use a safe home.”
He raised a dark eyebrow, studying me. “When I left this morning, you were planning on staying home today. Where did you get off to?”
I told him about Rowan and my plan to use her portal to find out who was visiting her during the night.
He glanced at the kitchen clock. “It’s almost six. You can fill in all of the details during supper.”
Which meant he was hungry. We made a quick salad, and I took the stew out of the oven. The meat was fall-apart tender. Raven grabbed a loaf of crusty bread, and we sat down to eat. By the time we’d finished, he wore a deep scowl.
“Some old woman came to our market and sold enchanted items out of her trunk?”
“That’s where Rowan bought the bookend.”
“From now on, when I’m out of town, I’ll have Brown or Strike watch over things there.”
“Probably not a bad idea, but my coven and I warded the entire area, including the parking lot and the road we take to get there.”
Raven stood to help me carry dirty dishes to the sink. I rinsed them, and he loaded the dishwasher. “Are you saying the old woman couldn’t be an enemy?”
“She must have been harmless or she couldn’t have gotten in.”
He shook his head. “I’m going to be interested in whom we find and how the portals work.”
“So am I.” And in five more hours, hopefully, we’d know.
We had to leave Claws at home. It would be too easy to lose him when we transported. Rowan was pacing back and forth past her front window when we pulled in her drive. She hurried to the door to let us in, and then swallowed hard when she looked up at Raven. My fire demon was six-five of pure muscle with ebony hair and amber eyes. If I made the girl nervous, he intimidated her.
“Are you ready?” I asked.
“How does it work?” She pulled the sleeves of her heavy sweater over her hands, hiding them.
I shook my head. “We have to be holding hands when I touch the portal and say my spell.”
Raven reached for my left hand and then for hers. For a minute, I thought Rowan was going to turn and run, but she pushed her arm out to him. Once we were all connected, I put my hand on the black cat bookend and chanted.
Wind rushed by us, and the world blurred. All we could feel was motion. And then it stopped. We found ourselves in the study of an old, tall and narrow house. Dark walnut bookshelves lined its walls, filled with tattered books with yellowed pages. A desk sat near the far end. The matching bookend sat on its corner. A black cat was curled on the cushion of a well-worn wingback chair lit by a floor lamp. A tiger cat sprawled on one book shelf. It blinked its yellow eyes at us. An orange tabby stretched across papers on the desk. Another cat licked its paw on the rag rug in the center of the room.
Comfortable surroundings, but then I smelled a gush of magic and raised my palms. An old woman stepped through the door, wearing a long, black robe. A witch. She grinned when she saw us and focused on Rowan. “Hello, dear. So good to see you again.”
Raven dropped our hands to let sparks skitter across his skin. The woman watched him, delighted, then said, “You have no need for that. I have no desire to harm any of you. I might have gotten a bit too zealous playing matchmaker, though.”
“Explain.” She might look like an innocent old thing, but I wasn’t going to let my guard down.
She held up a finger for us to give her a moment and turned to call, “Rhys! I need you.”
Footsteps sounded in the hall and a young man stepped into the room. When Rowan saw him, she blinked. “It’s you.”
A blush crept all the way to his hairline and he looked down. He wasn’t handsome, but he was attractive with brown hair and soft brown eyes. In a low voice, he mumbled, “I’m sorry, Astra. I’ve caused trouble for you.”
“Nonsense, boy. I’m the one who sold the bookend to the girl, and then I asked you to bring me the bookend in my study. I’d spelled it so when you touched it, you’d go to her.”
He jerked up his head to stare at her. “But why?”
“You talked about her every time you came home from that market. You’ve had a crush on her from the first time you saw her.”
I was growing impatient. I turned to Rowan. “You know this man?”
Her blush matched his. “That’s why I’ve been going to the market every Saturday, hoping to see him.”
“Are you his mother? Grandmother?” I asked the woman.
She shook her head. “Some poor young witch left him on my doorstep when he was hardly a month old. By the time I found her, she was already in her grave. Her father was furious she’d gotten pregnant and blasted her. She’d brought Rhys here to hide him.”
Raven’s sparks disappeared, and he studied Rhys. “You raised him?”
“He’s been such a joy to me. Such a good boy. I’ve tried to teach him our ways, but he didn’t get his mother’s magic. It’s like that sometimes with boys. It’s latent, but it’s there. Without magic, though, he can’t pass your wards. They reject him as a mortal.”
I was more confused than before. “Do you want him to move to Muddy River?”
“I hadn’t thought of it until he came home each Saturday with stories of the beautiful girl he’d met. The more I thought about it, the more I liked the idea. You transported here, so you can’t know, but I live two towns over from you. Close enough for him to visit me, but he’d be safe inside your borders. With so little magic, his safety worries me. And if he mates and has daughters, they’ll inherit his mother’s gifts.”
His children would probably have stronger magic than him or Rowan. . .if the old woman’s matchmaking worked. But when I looked at Rowan, the way she glanced at Rhys, and the way he looked at her, I thought Astra might be right. They liked each other, and they’d make a good pair.
Raven let out a sigh of resignation. “Just tell me this, Rhys. If you could transport to see Rowan, why didn’t you wake her? Talk to her? Why just look at her while she slept?”
Rhys’s gaze rested on Rowan as he answered. “Because she lives in Muddy River, and your wards rejected me. I didn’t think I had a chance of winning her. And even if I did, I didn’t want her to leave there—to give up her family and friends. And she doesn’t have very much magic either. She’s safe there. She might not be if she lived with mortals and rogues. It felt hopeless.”
I liked him better for that answer. He was willing to put Rowan first. There was nothing for it but to remedy this problem. I reached out and placed my hand on Rhys’s arm, then pushed magic into him. He winced and yanked his sleeve up. A small black cat stained his arm. It looked like a tattoo.
“That’s your entry mark,” I told him. “You can cross our borders now.”
He blinked, surprised, then turned to Rowan with a wide smile. “I’d love to see you again. Do you mind if I drive to visit you?”
Her grin was wider. She reached for his hand and then held out her other hand to Raven. “Do you mind if I take him home with me tonight?” she asked Astra.
I blinked, surprised. “Aren’t you moving awfully fast?”
“We talked for hours at the market. I know him. I haven’t met anyone in Muddy River who makes me feel like he does.”
All righty then. No more arguments from me.
The old lady chuckled. She pointed to the bookend. “Come and go as you please.”
Rhys opened his lips to thank her, but she waved him off. “Go. Have fun, boy. Stay as long as you like. I’ll be here when you come back.”
That was a dismissal if I’d ever heard one. I took Raven’s hand and laid my other hand on the portal. After a swoosh of air, we were back in Rowan’s living room.
The two young people turned to each other, and Raven shook his head. “We’re out of here. You two have a lot of things to discuss.”
Yeah, like that was what they were going to do. We headed to the door and let ourselves out. I waved my hand over it to lock it. On the drive home, Raven gave another shake of his head. “Well, in all my years, I’ve never had an experience like that.”
Neither had I, but I was glad it had happened. Rhys and Rowan would be mated before Muddy River celebrated Samhain. And they’d have something special to remember every year at this time.